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How to Help Children Learn to Say Sorry and Mean It

I'm a dad, husband, and Christian first. Second, I'm an educator & organizational development professional.


When kids do something wrong, it is common to see parents prompting their kids to apologize. And with a half-hearted tone kids utter “Sorry.” Although this is a great start toward understanding the value of apologies, children need to learn that a blandly-uttered sorry is not enough. Moreover, parents need to understand that an apology is more than just saying the words.

Sorry is not a magical word that automatically makes things better. Unfortunately, this is how many parents illustrate it—unintentionally I think. Just look back at the times when we were asked to apologize and things seemed to magically go back to the happy state we wanted, or perhaps you can recall how your parents forced you to say the words and, with a defiant heart, you articulated them while you still harbored resentment or lack of remorse for what you did. Somehow, saying the words keeps the parents at bay and you can go on your merry way. Even I fall into this trap of teaching my daughter the shallow end of apologies. We need to rethink our parenting style when it comes to this important aspect of their lives.

A came across a wonderful quote from Bob Talber which says:

"Teaching kids how to count is fine, but teaching them what counts is best. Parents have the responsibility to educate their children. And one important skill kids should know is how to say sorry."

Here are some tips on how you can help your child move from simply saying sorry to actually making an apology.

#1 Help Them Understand What They Did Wrong

More often than not, children (especially the younger ones) do not know what they did wrong. And when we ask them to apologize for something they do not know why, which confuses them. As a result, we get apologies filled with sarcasm, contempt, or downright bewilderment. It is therefore important to let the children understand what they did wrong.

Of course, we explain calmly and clearly what they did wrong. But there are good ways and really terrible ways of doing this. Here are some examples:

“You little freak, I told you not to throw your toys inside the house. Now the TV is broken and I can’t watch the game.” If you guess that this is a terrible way, you’re right.

Instead, you can say, “Throwing toys inside the house can cause accidents and break stuff. Next time you can play this game outside.”

This way, when they apologize, they know exactly what they did wrong. Moreover, when they say sorry, they have to acknowledge the mistake that they made.

“Sorry I broke the TV because I disobeyed the house rules.”

Even adults need to understand and acknowledge the wrong behaviors and actions that we commit. By being a good example we can help our children learn how to apologize properly.

Quick notes on child discipline:

  • Make your child understand what they did wrong.
  • Endeavor to improve the behavior, not on making the children feel bad about themselves.

#2 Teach Them to Take Responsibility for Their Actions

Another important aspect of an apology is taking responsibility for one’s actions. This is quite difficult for kids to understand (and for many adults as well). However, taking responsibility and making efforts to rectify the error are essential in making amends. So, how do you make kids more responsible for their actions?

One practical way for kids to take responsibility is to fix what they did wrong. For example, when they mess up the stack of DVDs, you can make them arrange them again. Surely you can’t expect a 3-year old to arrange them according to the number of awards each movie got. Rather, the simple act of putting stuff back gives them a sense of responsibility. As they grow older, you can make them do more. Another example is for the child to do some chores at home or some other reprimand that is still productive and child-safe. Children should understand that there are consequences for their actions. It is a good idea to set rules early. More importantly, you have to be clear about it.

Quick notes on child discipline:

  • Make them assume responsibility for their actions.
  • Set rules and make them understand them.
  • Implement consistently.

#3 Guide Them to Avoid the Same Mistakes

One of the most integral parts of being sorry is not to do the same misdeeds again. This entails a little more patience and understanding from the parents. Moreover, guiding our children not to make the same mistakes will eventually help them build a better knowledge of what is accepted and what is not. But like many things in life, this is easier said than done. There are numerous ways parents can help their children move away from misbehaving.

Setting rules and reminding them is often a painstaking process. However, it must be done. After all, even adults forget to do the right thing. In addition, parents need to identify precursors to unwanted behavior. Just think about the situations when your child did something you deemed a breach of your parent-child agreement. Now, think about the circumstances that paved the way for your child to misbehave. By identifying these circumstances, you can anticipate their possible misbehaviors. More importantly, you can employ interventions or even preemptive moves so it will not become worse. Another method you can use is to commend the child for not misbehaving when the situation usually turns out for the worse. Giving them a pat on the back or even a reward for doing the right stuff can help reinforce good behavior. Regardless of your method, you should keep in mind that children require constant guidance and a lot of reminders.

Quick notes on child discipline:

  • Be keen on situations/circumstances that may lead to misbehavior.
  • Remind children about the rules and expectations.
  • Reinforce good behavior.

Having your child apologize takes more than just uttering the words sorry. Although it seems easier this way, it gives our children the wrong notion about what an apology should be. Instead, parents should endeavor to teach their children the values behind the word sorry. We want them to take responsibility for their actions and more importantly, rectify their errors.

Apologizing from the heart takes a considerable amount of maturity. Starting early on in life will help your child grow up to become a person with a solid value system at his/her core. Child discipline requires parents who are truly engaged in their child’s growth and development.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Sp Greaney from Ireland on February 17, 2018:

I think we all at some point are guilty of this bad behavior and your points are very useful and practical.

After all it's the adults responsibility to express to the child the consequences of their actions. How else can they learn.

JP Carlos (author) from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on July 11, 2017:

Thank you for the kind words about the article. Let's help children grow up to become exemplary individuals.

smcopywrite from all over the web on July 06, 2017:

A lot of apologizing is tied to empathy. teaching our kids the positive side of doing unto others, accidents happen and it is okay to be sorry is tied to the process

wonderful article and well needed